As discussed in previous posts (see posts 1 to 10), Murray, Grau and Ryan argue that successful and immersive media become transparent to their users. This implies that immediacy is a necessary condition for immersion. Ryan introduces a scale of immersion, assuming a gliding scale between seeing-in and seeing-as. However, in Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (1990), Kendall L. Walton argues that immersion is not primarily about perception, but rather about imagination. According to Walton, we do not first see the object and then the represented when dealing with representations. Walton follows Heidegger and Wittgenstein in the idea that seeing in and seeing as are involved in one mental process. The works of Murray, Ryan and especially Grau are motivated by the transfer of seeing in to seeing as: seeing in would imply being aware of the medium, seeing as would entail, in Grau’s terms, “unconscious illusion”. In Walton’s view, this unconscious illusion (or immediacy) is not necessary for immersion to occur, as he compares our involvement with representations to what he calls children’s games of make-believe: “What all representations have in common is a role in make-believe. Make-believe, explained in terms of imagination, will constitute the core of my theory.” (Walton 4)
Walton argues that “the experience of being caught up in a story, being emotionally involved in the world of a novel or play or painting” is central to our evaluation of fiction.” (Walton 6) To understand this experience, Walton argues that representations act as props in games of make-believe. A doll can be a prop when it is imagined to be a baby in a children’s game of make-believe. Because the doll shows similarities to a baby, it is a representation of a baby. Therefore, the game of make-believe in which the doll is imagined to be a baby is motivated. The game of make believe takes place in the imagination of the child playing the game.
John Dominis’ ‘American Child Playing with Chinese Friend, Washing Doll Clothes’
When an observer looks at a painting, the same happens. The observer ‘uses’ the painting to imagine what is represented in a game of make-believe. When this game of make-believe corresponds to the representation, the game is motivated. However, as Grau already noted, depictive representations do not coincide with reality. In a perceptual game of make-believe, translation is needed. The representation is mimetic, but also conventional. Observers are used to conventions like perspective, so this translation is quick and easy. With verbal representations, although they are more conventional than depictive representations, this process is no different. A verbal representation is, just like a depictive representation, a prop in a game of make-believe. Depictive representations however, are visual input for our imagination and therefore keep functioning as a prop in make-believe, while a verbal representation is only an initiator for imagination. [Note 1] Despite the differences between depictive and verbal representations, for Walton both types of representations primarily function as props in games of make-believe.
The Tall Book of Make-believe by Jane Werner (1950)
Our relation to representations is thus explained as our imagination being stimulated by representations. [Note 2] Walton argues that seeing in and seeing as are involved in one mental process. Placing our (emotional) involvement in imagination – through the analogy to children’s games of make-believe – the quest for immediacy, or, seeing as, is no longer needed for pursuing immersion, as our involvement with representations takes place in the imagination. The theories of immersion previously discussed, and most explicitly that of Grau, started off with a negative point of view, i.e. an absence or failure: the unconscious illusion needed for immersion. This perspective not only focuses on the medium’s disappearance and the paradox between immediacy and hypermediacy (Bolter & Grusin 1999), but also grants an important role to something illusory of which we are unconscious. It is therefore hard to get a grip on this notion of immersion, as it is necessarily beyond our consciousness. Walton however provides us with a framework of make-believe, in which imagination is seen as the place in which immersion arises and media are seen as having the potential to stimulate this imagination, rather than as incompetent devices. Walton’s analogy to make-believe thus makes the discussion on (defining) immersion more pragmatic and focuses on possibilities of the whole range of representational arts. The question is now what the relation between representations and our imagination is. To explain how games of make-believe work, we will look at Walton’s notion of fictional propositions.
 A verbal representation is an initiator for imagination, while a perceptual representation continually fulfills its function as a prop in our game of make-believe. After reading, words have fulfilled their function as props. This means that, when looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the painting itself keeps functioning as a prop while the observer imagines seeing Jesus and his disciples. But, when reading about the last supper, we construct an image of this scene after which the words that trigger this imagination lose their function. To account for this difference, Walton argues that when we read a book, we fictionally believe we are reading a report of an event, much like Ryan’s example of the epistolary novel. This report can be ‘written’ by an eyewitness or a character internal to the story. Although Walton’s report-model is credited with much potential, Walton seems to use narrative concepts like author, narrator, story history and focalization without the necessary critical distinction. (See Walton 149, 168, 329 and 378)
 Walton’s approach is based on cognitive psychology, as are the approaches of Bordwell, Carroll and Currie. This cognitive approach can be understood as a reaction to film theory that focuses on textual and narrative analysis to determine the meaning of a movie, leaving less space for regarding the observer’s relation to the movie. While cognitivists argue that the observer’s involvement is absent in other film theories, film scholars like Temenuga Trifonova argue that in the cognitive film theory the object or movie itself becomes irrelevant to the analysis and interpretation: “The real object is totally irrelevant to the act of comprehension; in fact, it remains an obstacle unless it is abstracted into a schema.” (Trifonova 2008, xxiv) We can see why this criticism also applies to Walton’s theory. The main objection is that of relativism: anything an observer ‘finds’ in a movie is relevant and textual analysis of a movie disappears into the background. The risk is that the movie is reduced to an instrument to study the functioning of the human brain. As we see in Walton’s approach, the text or movie does not become totally irrelevant, as he introduces the notion of authorized games of make-believe. (Walton 51) This means that the observer cannot just think everything into the imaginatory world of the game of make-believe; the representation should motivate the game played with it. However, as the focus here is on immersion as our emotional involvement with representations, cognitive theory is of great help in understanding this involvement. The focus is on the question of how we get ‘immersed’ in a representation, rather than on full textual analysis.
Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003.
Bolter, J. David, and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.
Trifonova, Temenuga. European Film Theory. London: New York, 2008.
Walton, Kendall L. Mimesis as Make-believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990.